June 28, 2022

What is a latte & why is it so popular?


In coffee shops around the world, the latte is arguably the most popular milk-based coffee beverage. According to 2020 data from Project Café USA, the latte was the most ordered drink in the UK, as well as the third-most popular beverage in US coffee shops.

However, while it is popular, the exact composition of the latte can differ depending on your geographical location – including throughout Europe. The drink is believed to have technically originated in 17th-century Europe, some time before its modern name was first coined in the late 1860s.

So why is this beverage so popular? And where did it come from? I spoke to two coffee professionals to learn more. Read on to learn more about what they told me.

You may also like our article on the flat white & where it came from.

A layered latte next to a stack of cookies.

The history of the latte

Coffee and milk have been enjoyed together in European coffee houses since the 1600s, as well as being a popular beverage at home for many coffee drinkers.

Across Europe, the classic milk-based coffee beverage takes a number of forms depending on where you are. This includes the caffè latte in Italy, Milchkaffee in Germany, café con leche in Spain, and café au lait in France. And although the latte shares similarities with these drinks, it wasn’t until the late 1860s that the first use of the term to describe a milk-based coffee beverage was established.

Tim Sturk is a coffee consultant for Booker Group, as well as a coffee competition judge and trainer. He tells me that the US helped to develop the latte as we know it today.

“When Americans first imported espresso machines from Italy after World War II, they wanted to imitate the coffee they had consumed in Italy,” he says. “At the time, consumers generally found coffee to taste too ‘strong’, so they added milk to make it taste milder.”

The latte was more recently popularised in Seattle during the late 1980s, with the drink then appearing in coffee shops across the country throughout the 1990s. Undoubtedly, the more subtle and less intense flavour of coffee made it more accessible, and helped it proliferate quickly not just across the US, but further afield around the world.

Sabrina Pastano is an authorised Specialty Coffee Association trainer and the manager of Guillam Coffee House in London. She further explains why the latte is one of the most popular beverages in coffee shops around the world.

“The latte makes me think about my Italian roots,” she says. “It’s also a drink that is constantly changing and adapting to the specialty coffee sector. It’s traditional, yet revolutionary.”

Barista placing a latte on the counter.

The latte today

As a result of these geographical differences, it can be difficult to universally define the latte. In some cases, it can be more similar to the flat white or cappuccino – especially in terms of size. 

However, in other places, the latte is a much larger drink – typically between 295ml and 340ml (10oz to 12oz). For comparison, the cappuccino is usually around 180ml (6oz).

“I define a latte as a cappuccino with more milk,” Tim tells me.

Typically, a cappuccino has at least 1cm of microfoam, compared to around 0.5cm for a latte or flat white. This ultimately affects the mouthfeel of the beverage, as less microfoam will produce a thinner – but still creamy – texture.

Tim explains that latte art is an essential aspect of the modern latte.

“It’s very rare to not find latte art on any milk-based coffee beverage in most coffee shops today,” he says.

The concept of latte art has existed for centuries, but owner of Espresso Vivace in Seattle, David Schomer, is largely credited with popularising it in the 1980s. Today, there are a number of well known latte art patterns – including the tulip, heart, and rosette (also known as a florette).

“The latte has an important role in the specialty coffee industry,” Sabrina says. “It’s not just because it’s a popular drink, but because it has so many variations.

“You can call it caffè latte, café au lait, or café con leche,” she explains. “You can have it iced or with syrups. 

“You can have a latte anywhere in the world and always expect something different,” she adds.

A latte with a layer of foam served in a glass.

Variations of the beverage

Although the latte can vary based on where you are in the world, there are some fundamental aspects of the drink which are common in many places.

“Traditionally, the latte was prepared by steaming milk to create microfoam,” Sabrina explains. “The barista then poured the milk into a glass and added the espresso on top.

“This method produces dry foam on top of the drink when poured, with liquid milk underneath,” Sabrina says. “This steaming technique is different to the wetter microfoam which is used for latte art.”

This method is a more traditional way of preparing a latte, which usually results in no latte art as the foam is too thick to pour most designs.

“A latte is usually poured into a tall glass, so when the barista pours the espresso you can see all the different shades of the coffee moving through the milk.”

However, it’s now more common for baristas to pour the steamed milk onto the espresso to make a latte. This is largely because this method is best for latte art, which has become a staple in the specialty coffee sector.

“The specialty coffee industry helped to make textured microfoam more common,” Tim explains. “Most baristas and consumers agree that it enhances the taste and texture of the beverage.”

Because the majority of a latte is milk, it is important that baristas hone their steaming and pouring techniques to prepare the best beverage possible for the consumer. Poor quality microfoam can negatively affect the mouthfeel of a latte – making the drink feel thin or watered down.

Grinding coffee for espresso into a white portafilter.

How is a latte made?

“To make a latte, we use the same espresso base as a cappuccino or flat white,” Sabrina tells me. “I generally use a ratio of 1:2, depending on the coffee.

“A latte is generally foamier than a flat white, but less so than a cappuccino,” she adds. “For this reason, it’s the perfect balance of espresso and milk for many consumers.”

Sabrina also adds that a latte should always be served in a glass rather than a mug. She says this allows the customer to see the milk and coffee slowly blending together – giving them something visually appealing to watch as they drink it.

The drink is also typically bigger than the flat white or cappuccino, as more milk is added to the espresso. This generally means that less of the coffee’s flavour will come through in the beverage – creating a sweeter, milkier beverage.

Because of this, the intensity of the espresso is especially important. In order to highlight the flavour of the coffee as much as possible, many coffee shops use two shots of espresso in their lattes.

Starbucks used to make its lattes with one shot of espresso (around 30ml) in a 12oz (340ml) cup,” Tim says. “Consumer demand in the UK pushed Starbucks to change their recipe to two shots (around 60ml).” 

Today, lattes prepared in specialty coffee shops are usually at least 236ml (8oz). This allows the espresso to cut through the sweetness of the milk, while at the same time offering a more milky beverage to customers.

As a general rule, medium to dark roast profiles work best for lattes, as do coffees with more chocolate and nutty tasting notes. This is because these flavours are typically more complementary to the larger volumes of milk, whereas more fruit-forward coffees or lighter roasts could be too acidic for many consumers.

When preparing a latte, try using coffees from Central or South America, such as Brazil, Guatemala, and Colombia. These coffees tend to have more chocolate, nut, and caramel flavours, and will generally work best in larger milk-based coffee drinks.

A latte with a heart latte art pattern on a wooden table.

Many milk-based coffee drinks are prepared differently around the world, including the latte. 

Over the years, the beverage has become a staple of the global coffee industry and remains consistently popular with many consumers.

And no matter how it’s prepared, one thing is for sure: the latte will be on coffee shop menus for many years to come.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on understanding the history of latte art.

Photo credits: Matthew Deyn

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